FOR THE GOOD OF THE EMPIRE
Part Four of ten
"Message from Battle Station Z9, Priority code," the communications technician said. "On your screen."
Captain Kross studied the message. "Tigermen are sending a squadron toward one of our mining colonies. All ships in the area are to get there at maximum speed.
"Communications, acknowledge the message and include our position. Tell them we are en route.
"Helm, take us to bearing 117 mark two and go to your best speed. Use your discretion until we have a real course.
"Navigation, plot a medium-risk course, give it to the helm. Then calculate our time of arrival at the mining colony and give that information to me and to communications.
"Communications, include the time of our arrival at the colony in your follow-up message and ask for the time of arrival of other ships responding and designation of reaction force commander."
The bridge crew went busily to work.
"I advise caution, Sir," Kaustin said quietly. "We don't know what we're getting into."
"Time enough for that," Kross said. "I can tell from the situation board that we are at least four hours from the colony, time enough to stage our arrival along with other ships. We are assuming that the mining colony is the Tigerman squadron's target. Just as likely, they will feint toward it and then attack something else, or just turn away after they observe our reactions. The situation will develop and we will be ready."
The Axe Wielder roared toward the mining colony at its top rated speed, which was a few percent slower than its maximum possible speed. Imperial regulations limited the maximum allowable speed based on fuel consumption and the maintenance load on the engines. Every warrior knew that a ship in good repair - and the Axe Wielder was in good repair - could squeeze a little more out of her engines if she had to. No one had told Captain Kross that he was allowed to violate imperial regulations, or rather, that no one would fault a decision to do so in this case. The other ships moving to the mining colony were all moving at 103% or more of their maximum allowed speed; one was moving at 107%. It never occurred to Captain Kross to violate these regulations.
"Signal from the Conqueror, Captain," the communications officer reported. "Three cruisers are moving to the colony, plus our own ship. That's all. Our arrival time is to be adjusted to match that of the first cruiser. A rendezvous location has been set one hundred thousand kilometers from the colony."
"Very well," Kross said. "Steady on course, continue combat preparations."
"I don't trust them," Kaustin said. "I suggest we arrive late so that we are not tricked into arriving early."
"Negative," Kross said. "We follow orders."
All manner of combat preparations were conducted during the flight to battle. The crew was fed, spare equipment was put away so it did not go flying about during combat, Marines (all of whom were police, not really marines) went to action stations and prepared to defend the ship or land on the colony, and gunners ran through a series of targeting drills. Technicians and damage control personnel worked on tasks assigned by the Chief Engineer and XO to bring off-line backup systems back on line where possible. The one thing that was not done was to disassemble the drone guidance packages and check them, and the warheads. Such inspections were conducted at routine intervals and no regulation required that they be checked again before combat. The fact that every ship in the fleet other than Axe Wielder did such inspections as part of combat preparations was known to Kross and Kaustin (the transferred officers had told them) but they regarded this as unnecessary busy work for technicians better employed bringing the tertiary backups for the transporters and communications gear back on line.
Ready for combat within two hours, the crew waited restlessly at their stations as the Axe Wielder continued to move to toward the colony. Section officers released crewmen a few at a time to get food or secure their personal gear.
At the appointed time, Axe Wielder dropped below Warp 3 and approached the Conqueror.
"Take station on my starboard flank," came the order from the cruiser's captain. "We will close on the colony."
Kross complied with the orders, although Kaustin complained that both ships should have waited for the other two cruisers. The two ships approached the colony, scanning for the approaching Kzinti fleet.
"Klingon squadron, this is Mining Station 965," came a transmission. Kross listened, expecting the cruiser to reply.
"MS965, this is Captain Korsh in the Conqueror," came the voice of the senior officer. "Where are the tigermen?"
"Our sensors show them five million kilometers out and headed straight for us. We have phasers and drones ready."
"What number are you tracking," Korsh said.
"Total nine targets in two groups," the colony said. "The closer group has four ships, two battlecruisers and two smaller cruisers. The second group includes two cruisers and three frigates and is about thirty thousand behind the first. Time to first group, four minutes."
"Conqueror to Anarchy," Korsh said, "time to arrival?"
"Two minutes," came the reply.
"Conqueror to Rabid," Korsh said, "time to arrival?"
"Four minutes," came the reply.
"Conqueror to Axe Wielder," Korsh said, "follow my lead. I am going to circle the station at one hundred thousand so the other ships can form up. We will be facing the enemy when they break five hundred thousand and slow down. Be ready for combat, Kross. Keep station on my flank, cover me from drone attack, expect no orders."
"It is done!" Kross responded as he held down the transmit switch, then released it. "Helm, conform to the movements of the Conqueror. Communications, monitor all transmissions. Weapons, keep the phasers hot and assign power to the disruptors for standard loads. Spin up all the drones on the rack and make ready all counter-drones."
"This is insane," Kaustin said. "We will be four ships against nine. We should leave. We should all leave."
"This is combat, Kaustin," Captain Kross said. "We do as we are told because we are expected to be where we were assigned doing the mission we were given. The Tigermen might be bluffing. Korsh is going to call their bluff. He'll get us out of here before we are destroyed, but he has to make them earn it."
"Anarchy is forming on the Conqueror," Krealander said.
"Maintain position," Kross said
"We're coming around the colony for the last time," Krealander said. "Contact imminent."
"Rabid is closing on the Conqueror," Krealander said.
"Target locked. Range 347,000 and falling rapidly. We have drones inbound, multiple targets. I count over twenty, make it twenty-four."
"Close in on Conqueror," Kross ordered. "Get within five thousand. Weapons officer, target incoming drones. Use all weapons. Launch our drones at the best targets. Feed your allocation to Conqueror."
"I am already getting their allocations and target queing," the weapons officer said. "Drone away. Gunners are being shown their targets. We're going to have to turn to take the last three targets."
"Krealander," Kross said, "calculate the point of the turn and feed that to the helm. We will turn to port and dive under the Conqueror."
"Axe Wielder to Conqueror," Kross said. "Be advised that to fulfill targeting missions, we will turn under you in 30 seconds."
"Approved," came the reply from the D7's XO. "When you have fired, take station to port of the Anarchy. The Rabid will take your present position when he joins the formation."
"Drones in primary range!" Krealander reported. "Weapons are engaging. Programmed turn commencing for second volley. Five drones destroyed, two damaged, two missed. Four of the drones we targeted have struck the Conqueror on two shields."
"Excellent shooting!" Kaustin said.
"Conqueror to Axe Wielder," the cruiser's XO said. "Your performance is sub-standard!"
"What is he talking about?" Kaustin asked Kross.
"My report was correct," Kaustin insisted.
"Silence!" Captain Kross ordered. "Leave the bridge, now! Go to your quarters and consider yourself under arrest."
"As you say," Kaustin acknowledged with a salute. "There will be an answer for this, but I am not the one to blame." Kaustin turned and left the bridge. "Drop shield #5," Kross ordered. "Use transporters to recover colonists as per order."
"It is done!" the weapons officer reported.
"Multiple drones inbound," reported Krealander. "Weapons exhausted and not yet recharged. We appear to be tracked by seven drones, five of which will impact before weapons can recharge or shields can be raised. Give me discretion to maneuver the ship to distribute the impacts as much as I can."
"Granted, but keep us as close to on station as possible," Kross ordered. "Comms, notify Conqueror of our plans and report the number of civilians evacuated."
The Axe Wielder maneuvered wildly, trying to distribute the drone hits on all of its shields, but Krealander could only do so much. Two drones struck the #4 shield, crushing it and damaging the ship; another struck the down #5 shield and caused major damage on the port wing. Two others struck the shields on the starboard side but did not penetrate.
"Weapons ready!" the weapons officer responded, "Only one rear phaser and the bow phasers are operable."
"Six drones inbound," Krealander reported. "Maneuvering right to get back in formation and get the #4 and #5 shields away from them. At best, the other shields can limit the damage, but not stop it."
"Target priorities set," the weapons officer said. "We will have one impact each on the #2 and #3 shields, unless the anti-drones can stop them. Permission to launch a drone as a counter weapon?'"
"Launch!" Kross ordered. The drone rocketed from the rack but passed within a kilometer of the incoming drone without exploding. Kross cursed as the drone slammed into the #3 shield, crushing it and knocking out the drone rack and last rear phaser.
"More drones inbound!" Krealander reported.
"Orders from Conqueror," the communications officer reported. "Disengage and link up at designated rally point!"
"Execute!" Kross ordered as the last four Kzinti drones closed on his ship with agonizing slowness as the Axe Wielder climbed toward warp three. Two more struck home before the ship passed the warp transition point and escaped further combat.